In the wake of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, many distinguished philosophers, theologians and writers have tried to explain what lessons should be drawn from the incident. On the whole, however, they seem to be stumped.

To Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, "it's incomprehensible." Elie Wiesel, teacher, author and survivor of the Holocaust, sees it "as an act of insanity." Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, says, " don't understand. I just don't understand."

Neither does the rest of the world. The most common reaction is that this is "the age of violence," although it would be hard to prove that violence is unique to the contemporary world. Latter-day popes, for instance, have enjoyed much safer lives than many of their predecessors.

Compare the 20th century with the one that followed the murder of Pope John VIII in 882. In his book, "The Medieval Papacy," Geoffrey Barrachough writes that in the period following Pope John's death, few popes "died peacefully in their beds." Actually, there were 37 popes in the 160 years after John was slain, many of them killed or deposed.

Historically, says U.S. News and World Report, "more than 30 of the 264 popes have suffered violent deaths, beginning with St. Peter, crucified upside down by the Romans in A.D. 64 or 67 on Rome's Vatican Hill. . . . uThe 14 pontiffs who succeeded Peter were also put to death."

The same study notes that "since Renaissance times the popes have generally escaped harm. The last to die outside Rome was Pius VI, who ended his days as a prisoner of Napoleon Bonaparte."

In recent centuries, the most celebrated victims of assassination have been monarchs and political leaders of one kind or another, whose deaths often provoked massive disturbances and lasting change. That is particularly true of the United States.

It would be difficult, for example, to exaggerate the consequences of the fatal attack on President Lincoln. Some historians would say the corrupt and demoralizing Reconstruction period, following the Civil War, would have been far different if the benign Lincoln had lived. Moreover, his martyrdom cemented the political dominance of the Republican Party, enabling it to control the White House almost continuously for the next 50 years. Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat elected president between 1860 and 1912.

It took another assassination to pave the way for a Democratic comeback. In 1901, the fatal shooting of President McKinley, leader of the Republican Old Guard, led to the ascension of Theodore Roosevelt, a spirited independent distrusted by the party bosses.

After serving until 1908, Roosevelt retired, but was so disappointed with the record of his conservative successor that he ran again for president in 1912 as the candidate of the Progresive Party, which split the Republican vote and elected Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee.

The mind boggles at what the United States might be like today had the assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 succeeded. If John Kennedy had not been killed in November 1963, the country might well have been spared the full agony of Vietnam. We might also have been spared Richard Nixon and Watergate had Robert Kennedy escaped assassination and become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968.

Finally, where would the nation be today if the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life had succeeded? The whole federal government now revolves around Reagan's presence and popularity. Had he been killed, who knows what would have become of his far-reaching program?